Terror Attack Survivors More Prone to Headaches

Researchers have shown that survivors of a terror attack have an increased risk of frequent migraine and tension headaches developing after the attack. Therefore there are potential physical effects of violent incidents in addition to the better known psychological effects.

The researchers studied the responses teenage survivors of the largest mass killing in Norway that occurred in 2011. In the attack, a lone gunman opened fire at a youth summer camp on Utøya Island, killing 69 people and severely wounding 33. All survivors experienced terror, some lost friends, and some risked drowning as they tried to escape the island. The study shows that a single highly stressful event such as a terror attack may lead to ongoing suffering with frequent migraines and other headaches.

All 358 teenage survivors of the incident were invited to participate in the study. A total of 213 survivors participated, with an average age of 18 and 6% being severely injured in the attack. Participants were interviewed about their headache type and frequency four to five months after the attack. These responses about their headache were compared to the responses of 1,704 young people of the same sex and age who had not experienced any terror.

The teens who had been exposed to the terror attack were four times more likely to have migraines and three times more likely to have frequent tension headaches than those who were not exposed to any terror. These findings remained the same after adjusting for sex, injury, prior exposure to violence, and psychological distress. Among the female respondents, 80 of the 109 (73%) who were exposed to the attack had recurrent headaches, compared to 325 of the 872 (37%)  who were not exposed. Among the male respondents, 43 of the 104 (41%) who were exposed to the attack had recurrent headaches, compared to 158 of the 832 (19%) who were not exposed. The terror attack survivors were more likely to have daily or weekly headaches than those who were not involved in such an incident.

The researchers feel that people right after terror attacks can be helped to help reduce the potential of frequent and disabling headaches occurring thereafter. In many cases with severe headaches, treatments can be most helpful early on before the headaches progresses to become chronic.  The researchers note that a limitation of the study was that they received a lower response rate from survivors with high symptom levels, which could have led to an underestimation of the risk of headaches occurring in the group. This is an interesting study and perhaps other research teams can look at other terror attack incidents and see if similar results where headaches increase also occur.

Source: Synne Øien Stensland, John-Anker Zwart, Tore Wentzel-Larsen, and Grete Dyb, The headache of terror, Neurology, 2017.

Leave a Comment